Say, ‘What’?

I was sitting on the couch tucked off the main room. I was relaxing, while nursing my youngest and watching my oldest happily play with whatever toys happened to be at her disposal. That is when it happened, a seemingly insignificant phrase changed my thinking forever.

Up until that moment, I don’t know that I had ever thought much about the word “what”. It is a common word in the English language and, just as commonly, a response to an unheard question. It wasn’t until I happened to overhear a conversation take place between a few of my husband’s aunts that a new idea struck me. Perhaps I had been using this one, simple word incorrectly for a good portion of my youth.

Being of a different generation, I had never thought to analyse the word “what” before. It seemed I might need to spend a few moments thinking this over and organizing my plan of attack.

It seems the great debate lies in how we respond to adults or other people in authority. When someone calls our name, we yell out, “WHAT?!” Ouch! There in lies the rub….

To older generations of people, this response comes across as disrespectful and rude. We are not to respond with a callous shout, but to calmly say, “Yes, mom?” (Or whichever phrase appropriately applies.)

Hmmm… You mean for years I had been disrespecting people and I didn’t know it? (gasp) Now I felt badly. From that moment on, I made a point of putting that phrase behind me and choosing a better one instead.

It isn’t that the word “what” is bad, in and of itself, but if my choice of words comes across as disrespectful, I want to make a point in picking better ones. In this case, that seemed to be the case.

Some might argue that this is completely subjective and they would be correct. This might not be a problem for a vast majority of people. In our family, however, this seems to be a point of contention. Always willing to learn and always wanting to please, I knew this needed to be learned in our home.

So, as our children grow, this is a lesson for them as well. When someone asks them a question, they are supposed to respond with an appropriate answer, not by yelling, “WHAT?” across the house.

Personally, I’m glad I happened to overhear the conversation. It made a change for the better in my own life and in the lives of my children. While I understand this might not be a moral issue, this does further the relationships of those in our family and helps us all understand the importance of being respectful to others.

Do you have a preferred response when you call your children?

“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” – Leviticus 19:32


30 thoughts on “Say, ‘What’?

  1. Not only would we say ‘what’ but would also follow it with a jeer. How disrespectful! We thought that it was okay since our cousins did the same to our aunties. My parents drove the what response out and replaced it with a whole new lesson. A respectful yes mama or yes papa bonded us more and drew a boundary of authority. Mama is older and should be spoken to not shouted at. The same with papa. I do the same with my kids and it helps me know what or how they are really doing.


  2. Just last week, I had a similar conversation with my daughter. I called her and got an annoyed-sounding, ”WHAT??”as the response. That was when I told the kids I won’t tolerate that anymore; from now on, I expect them to COME when they are called. Not yell. The next time I called my daughter, she came to me, batted her eyelashes, and said, ”What is it, Mother?” I had to laugh.


  3. In the South, this is trained to the utmost to be followed by this response: “Yes, Ma’am.” It is NOT allowed to be otherwise. However, one Southerner shared the story that they moved to California for a brief stint. At school the teacher called her daughter’s name. The daughter responded as any properly trained Southern child, with “Yes, Ma’am?” –The daughter got in trouble by the teacher because she thought the child was being disrespectful and was asked not to use this reply. I can only imagine, because in most parts of the US, “Yes, Ma’am” is sneered out. I am confident in this case it was not. Interesting, eh?


  4. We are from the south, Southern GA to be exact, and it is considered very rude to reply with “what” I couldn’t believe when we moved out west to Utah and every child just says yes, or no, or what. We were raised to always say “yes, mam” “yes sir, no sir” In Utah, people were very thrown off by our terms and would say things “like don’t call me sir, that’s my father!” i keep my kids in check, this is one thing I don’t want to lose from our southern roots. It’s about respect!


    • I am from Idaho, and we grew up saying, “what.” In fact, my dad was the biggest culprit, although he would say it in a harsh way that had us flinching. I tend to say it to my children, although not as harshly. But we have been growing out of it, and about 5 years ago started expecting yes ma’am and yes sir…or something equally as respectful. My 2nd has a bad habit of being disrespectful; she is the one I have to get after for saying “what,” not necessarily in an innocent way, but she snips it. I’m putting an end to it now with consistency. And we are now in New Mexico. Where they too were usually taught the yes ma’am and sir.


  5. Reblogged this on Combat ready family and commented:
    My southern roots dictate my response, we say “yes, mam or yes, sir” never “What” Maybe our souther values are a little out dated, but a “what” in this family would not do! How much of your family values have you passed to your children? Have you took a step back to think about why your family insisted you reacted a certain way. My parents always demand respect. It’s in our blood!


  6. Our children have been taught to come when we call them. It has also taught me to be mindful of calling their names when I only want to have a short conversation with them. Unless I need them to stop what they are doing, and come to me, I try to go to them. Like wise, they are not allowed to yell, “mom” from another room. I tell them they need to come to me, unless there is an emergency that I need to tend to! Great post! 🙂


  7. Interestingly, a few months ago, I had a similar experience. My oldest (9) was not a “What?!” sort of kid, but my second (7), is. She started yelling it when she did not want to leave what she was doing to respond to me. I had never really thought of what as being rude until the first time she did it. She was in effect, intentional or not, saying, “you are not important enough to get up and go to, so I will just yell.” We have talked about it, and she now comes and replies with “Yes, Mom?” It makes for a less loud, more pleasant household.


  8. Same for me and I guess it is a cultural thing and therefore subjective. When my children are called they have been taught to say, “Yes_______”, AND go see why they were called. This avoids shouting back and forth across the home and, I agree, makes for a quieter home. Also, I don’t think showing elders respect ever goes out of style…just my humble opinion:-)


  9. I can honestly say I have never given this an ounce of thought. In our neck of the woods, ‘what’ is a perfectly appropriate response. However, I can see that in certain company it could come across as disrespectful–I shall give this some thought. I like the idea of having a better response. Thanks for challenging my thinking!


  10. I was also taught that it’s disrespectful to say that, and my family is pretty chilled 😉 We usually yell “Yes?” which I guess isn’t that much better, but I think it sounds more open, whereas “What?” can sound standoffish.


  11. When someone calls my name, I have a ready set reply lol. “Yessum? “. “Yessir” or “hey can I help ya?” Dontcha just hate “what??!!” As an answer to calling a name? I do. My “whaaatttt!!!??” Is reserved for moments of shock, such as when we found out 2 of our friends were pregnant and due same tiime and told us together at same time it was ” whaaaaatttttt!!!!!!??????? Ooooooo I’m so thrilled, oh I can’t believe , omg this is amaaaaaazing whaaaaaaaat I’m in shock!!!!! “.


  12. I’ve taught my kids to always respond with a “yes ma’am” to me and a “yes sir” to their dad. More importantly, they need to stop what they are doing and come right away so that there is no more yelling. Now are they awesome about this? Not even close, but we are working on it constantly. My oldest has it pretty ingrained in her, but the boys struggle with it more. 🙂 They also know that I will not accept “Yeah” as an answer – put the “s” on the end! Ha, all of it comes from my teaching days, to be honest. I found that students were much more respectful and paid much more attention when they were required to say “yes, ma’am,” “no, ma’am,” and yes (not yeah).
    Here in the Pacific Northwest however, my kids do get funny looks sometimes when they say “yes, ma’am”. Oh well. We are weird unsocialized homeschoolers after all. 🙂


  13. Pingback: RSVP | A Homeschool Mom

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